How We Can Help Japan

As the situation in Japan grows more dire, there's a lot of argument about how — and even if — Americans should donate to the disaster-ravaged country. Below, we break down some of the advice.

Does Japan need aid?

This may seem like a stupid question if you've been looking at photos of devastated Japanese landscapes. But Japan's a wealthy and well-organized country, and some have argued that this means it may not need foreign aid. However, conditions keep getting worse, especially given rising fears of nuclear disaster. On the Times Room for Debate blog, NGO expert Joel Charny says, "the devastation from last week's earthquake and tsunami has proved to be too much for even Japan." And the LA Times reports that Japan's response to hunger and cold in the quake zone has been less successful than expected:

It remained unclear why a nation renowned for its efficiency has been unable to marshal convoys of supply trucks into the disaster area, as China did after its 2008 earthquake. Though military vehicles were evident, few emergency supplies were seen on the major arteries from Tokyo into the hard-hit Tohuku region and other seriously affected areas.

Short answer: as days go by, the idea that Japan's too rich and stable to need help seems less and less true.

Can Americans provide it?

This is a tougher question. Last week at Gizmodo, Mark Wilson wrote that most American aid organizations were taking a wait-and-see attitude to the crisis. As subsequent updates to that post reflect, some are now mobilizing, although as of Monday several were still waiting for Japanese requests for aid. Experts are reminding concerned Americans that if they do donate, they should send money, not stuff. But where to give money? As the crisis intensifies, several specific options are emerging:

Give to organizations that are already mobilized

According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, a number of organizations are actively working on the relief effort at this time. Some of these include:

Action Against Hunger

Adventist Development and Relief Agency

Convoy of Hope

Food for the Hungry

K.I.D.S.

Medical Teams International

Mercy Corps

Also, Google.org has set up a page via which you can donate directly to the Japanese Red Cross or Save the Children, both of which are actively working in Japan. Unicef, also accessible through Google.org, appears to be currently assessing needs in the quake zone, and is accepting donations for relief efforts to follow.

Give a non-earmarked gift

Felix Salmon has gotten a lot of flak for a recent blog post with the inflammatory title, "Don't donate money to Japan." But he has a point — though we all want to help in a disaster, nonprofits are most effective if they can choose how they spend their money. He quotes Doctors Without Borders (MSF):

MSF does not issue appeals for support for specific emergencies and this is why we do not include an area to specify a donation purpose on our on-line donation form. MSF would not have been able to act so swiftly in response to the emergency in Haiti, as an example, if not for the ongoing general support from our donors. So we always ask our supporters to consider making an unrestricted contribution.

Indeed, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, MSF "has sent assessment teams to [Japan] but is paying for those efforts with unrestricted funds." Disasters can be an important spur for donations, but giving specifically to disaster relief isn't the only way to help. Sometimes finding a nonprofit you trust — Charity Navigator has some guidelines for that — and giving an unrestricted gift can be a good way to aid the victims not just of this crisis, but of the next one.

Wait

It may seem callous not to respond immediately, but waiting isn't a terrible option. Many charities on the Chronicle's list are still trying to figure out their response, and with reactor workers still struggling to stabilize the Fukushima Daiichi plant, the final extent of Japan's devastation is far from clear. If the reactor workers can avert a crisis, the Japanese government will be able to focus more on evaluating needs and requesting specific help. One thing, unfortunately, is for sure: rebuilding will be a long process. And even if you don't give today or tomorrow, your donations will likely be welcome for a long time to come.

Did Your Donation Really Reach Japan? (Probably Not.) [Gizmodo]

Responses From Charities To The Japan Earthquake And Pacific Tsunami [Chronicle Of Philanthropy]

Radiation Spikes Add To Nuclear Peril In Japan [LA Times]

Japan Earthquake And Tsunami: How To Help [Charity Navigator]

How To Work With Locals [NYT Room For Debate Blog]

Need Overwhelms Japan After Quake And Tsunami [NYT]

Don't Donate Money To Japan [Reuters]